In her recent book about the novel (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel[*]), Jane Smiley points out that while the writer gets to make the rules for his or her work, the reader has the option to read it or not, and is free to “object or disagree.” This critical pact has required novelists since Boccaccio to think about the best ways to lure the reader into reading (for it remains true, with few exceptions, that novelists want their books to be read). They experiment with ways of telling stories, and because some experiments are more fruitful than others, a collective wisdom eventually accrues about how to proceed.
The most influential theorist remains Henry James, but Smiley, who is always an original, lively, and fearless writer, introduces many ideas that invite discussion, or at least complicate her subsequent novel projects by ensuring they’ll be tested against her theories. In Thirteen Ways she talks about the novel’s origins with, among others, Boccaccio, whose Decameron was one of the earliest examples of the novelistic impulse, a collection of tales held together within a little frame explaining who was telling them and why; the germ of the form is this frame, and in the tales themselves, which, as she says in Thirteen Ways, bear “many of the hallmarks of the modern novel—moral relativity, everyday concerns, and uneasiness about, on the one hand, money, and on the other hand, God.”
In the Decameron, ten characters—three men and seven women—fleeing the plague in early Renaissance Florence pass the time in their rural retreat by each telling a story a day. The assembled hundred tales—in turn touching, misogynistic, cruel, or funny—would influence later writers of compendiums of stories from Chaucer to Smiley herself in her new novel Ten Days in the Hills.
Smiley is adventurous and analytical. Much of her work has been parody, or recasting earlier works in modern terms that illuminate both the original work and our own times; one might think of her version of “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” told from the point of view of the wife, or, most notably, A Thousand Acres, a King Lear set on an Iowa farm in the 1980s, told from the point of view of Goneril. Her novel Moo satirizes both the academic novel and midwestern academia. Her most fully successful work is probably the lovable novel Horse Heaven, where she writes with convincing authority from the points of view of horses and dogs.
In Ten Days in the Hills, evidently fascinated by Boccaccio’s Decameron, she begins by adopting the same formal structure: ten people at a house party, telling stories, albeit what Henry James called “concise anecdote” in the place of full-blown formal tales—little stories about gruesome murders they’ve read about, good Germans, a person named Stephanie Larsson’s progress in psychotherapy, the story of a putative Vermeer…. Like Boccaccio’s characters, Smiley’s group of people retire to escape something—in this case, news of the Iraq war. Many of the tales in Boccaccio are bawdy—those parts were in Latin in our parents’ copies—and Smiley follows in this tradition with, compared to her other work, a good many frisky sex scenes which constitute almost the only action.
The characters are Max, a film director, and his twenty-three-year-old daughter Isabel; his girlfriend Elena and her college-age son Simon; Max’s agent Stoney (who, unbeknownst to Max, has also been Isabel’s lover since she was underage); his friend Charlie; his ex-wife (Isabel’s mother) Zoe (a big movie star); Zoe’s mother Delphine (Jamaican); Delphine’s friend Cassie; and Zoe’s bearded guru boyfriend Paul. As in Boccaccio there are some servants around too. It begins the morning after the Oscars, at which Max was a nominee, and is set at his beautiful house in Malibu.
Henry James, “the Master” whose strictures no novelist can be entirely unmindful of, was a strong supporter of the idea that novels should be told from the point of view, however fallible, of one or two main characters, an idea Smiley tests: “a risk of James’s method is that all events and their emotional impact would be second-hand.” Here, instead, we have an omniscient narrator who drifts at will into the male perspectives of Paul, Max, Simon, Charlie, and Stoney, of women (Zoe, Elena, etc.), of old and young—but into none deeply. Few of their thoughts are given, as opposed to their views; our access to the characters mainly comes through what they say, for the whole work is above all constructed of conversation. A question for the post-Boccaccio reader is whether this works. The Master would probably say Ten Days in the Hills doesn’t hold attention because the points of view are too diffuse, and it lacks a central protagonist with whom we can identify, though he of course wouldn’t have used that term.
The Master also thought “‘real’ talk” in novels, talk that revealed the “play of the mind,””an explicit interest in life, a due demonstration of the interest by persons qualified to feel it,” was more apt to be found among Europeans, in contrast to “the American theory” of conversation, that it “should never become ‘better’ than [that suited to] the female young.” This novel’s talk is among Americans, but luckily the female young person, Isabel, is worldly enough to join any subject at all. Certainly Smiley’s American talk would pass for good talk almost anywhere, but eventually, Ten Days becomes a little like a long tape of the party you were just at, with people recounting plots of movies, or telling a story about a girl who is an expert on cleaning pet stains, or the life of the Dalai Lama as a boy; at length such talk suffers from the fact that while it is usually gratifying for a while to hear your own opinions and attitudes expressed, this ultimately palls, and you want to hear people say things you couldn’t think up yourself.
One of the older characters, Charlie, is appointed by Smiley to say the politically incorrect things so the others can question and refute:
“Well, any time the nation goes to war, you have to support it.”
“Why? What difference does it make if I don’t support it?”
“Well, the war effort is undermined.”
“How? I’ve paid my taxes….”
Cassie, too, has a dialectical function, to elicit little sermons, here from Elena:
“Yes, well, but now you’re playing into the conservatives’ hands, because you’re discussing all sorts of huge and unrealistic ideas while they go ahead and do something that is illegal and inhumane, which is invade a country and bomb their populations and take their assets. It’s perfectly fine with Rumsfeld if you debate issues of global life and death, because that occupies you while he deploys his army.” She did sound shrill, thought Isabel, although Isabel knew perfectly well that the very word “shrill” was always applied only to women, and only when they were stating strong and usually correct opinions.
The political talk is topical:
You had the feeling that, even though there was a lot of discord, the country wasn’t in danger, because he, Bill Clinton, didn’t seem afraid…. You know, as soon as Bush got the nod, sometime that December, he said that the economy was going to collapse. Why would he do that?
Personally, I don’t hate the President to the degree where I can’t stand the sound of his voice.
Sermons belong in church, the novelist is often told, but, bent on sermons, Smiley has devised a forum for slipping hers into these lively discussions among people who have nothing else to do for the moment but talk. If this were a library book, you would find “how true” written in the margins in different hands. Finally, Smiley owes more to the satires of Thomas Love Peacock than to Boccaccio and has produced a novel of eclectic reading, movie-going, and not so much of ideas as of received opinions—received anyhow among rich Californians and tree-huggers everywhere. If you agree with the ideas, which, if you’re reading this, you probably do, you will find it amusing; but if not, you won’t continue, for there is no suspense and not much drama among the characters.
The action is introduced somewhat arbitrarily, one feels, just to interrupt the talk. At one point, the discussion is ended by the college student, Simon, socking Paul in the jaw. “What in the world were you thinking of, Simon?” asks his mother, and Simon says, “I was thinking of Bishop Berkeley…. He was this guy in the eighteenth century who said that everything was an illusion….”
Well, maybe. Simon goes on to recount the episode where Kant kicks a stone by the side of the road and says it illustrates what he thinks of Berkeley. But the reader will be thinking less of Bishop Berkeley than of another, more important tutelary presence, Henry Miller. There are, for Smiley, quite a lot of somewhat detailed sex scenes, perhaps in homage to Boccaccio too. We know she believes that novel-writing is a game of which the novelist makes the rules, and it seems that one of her rules was that everyone here should have slept with at least two other characters: Zoe sleeps with Paul and Simon, Simon sleeps with Zoe and Marya, a maid, while Charlie sleeps with Monique, another maid, Stoney sleeps with Isabel, Max sleeps with Elena, and has slept, of course, with his ex-wife. And so on. Cassie and Delphine are excused, maybe because of their ages.
One of the many anecdotes recounted is about Henry Miller, and there is also something of Miller in the good-naturedness of everybody. And as in Miller, the sex is rather elaborately, athletically, and inventively described with attention to the extraneous distractions that occur in life but seldom in books. This is Isabel and Stoney:
…She felt him come more deeply into her, right into that place that had seemed to be opening up, and now was. She positioned herself on the lounge chair, which wasn’t easy, because it was so narrow. Its metal frame seemed like it had to dig into one of her knees or the other, or else she had to put one knee on the slats, which was more comfortable, and one foot on the ground, which was awkward.
And Max and Elena:
He was a mesomorph. As he moved, the layers slid smoothly and noiselessly across one another. As she pushed against him, the springing hairs flattened; she felt the different texture of his skin against hers. When children were raised without biology teachers and encyclopedias, how did they perceive the bodies of their lovers? It was impossible to know, Elena thought.
The scene where right-wing sixtyish Charlie sleeps with the Russian maid Monique could come right out of Miller. Charlie and Monique listen in, over the phone, to Simon and Marya, the other Russian maid, having sex. “See what you have missed. Here, I will put them on the speaker phone,” says Marya.
There’s a lot of love-making, but basically, the ten people go on talking, the novelist amusing herself and us with her ten literate, minimally differentiated mouthpieces ranging on subjects from the Rape of Nanking to real estate prices in Capitola. Isabel’s graduation speaker had been on the side of
universal love and Nelson Mandela and seeking a higher form of forgiveness, and why wouldn’t he? He lived in Capitola! He bought his house for forty-six thousand dollars and now it’s worth about a million! Of course he’s conversant with universal love! I would be too if I lived in Santa Cruz and had a sailboat.
If the Council on Foreign Relations has a plan at this point, it’s a bad plan and doesn’t speak well for their competence as a shadow world-government. That’s my view.
It’s all high-energy, and reads a bit like outtakes from her other novels, or even from her Thirteen Ways essay, a compendium of morsels—facts and curious developments too good to throw away.
Besides the risks of a novel of talk, Ten Days in the Hills courts a generic problem, the problem, or jinx, of the Hollywood novel, where all the people are too rich and attractive to care about. Silver-fork novels about the privileged and well-born are usually fun to read, but something often irritates people about Hollywood characters, and invites our paradoxical rejection, as politicians are apt to find to their cost if they get too thick with Hollywood stars. The problems of drugs and weight control generic among Hollywood figures do not engage us the way mortal danger does, and neither do their career problems and quests for love.
And setting aside the question of “caring,” Smiley takes another risk. Her novel Horse Heaven, despite its numerous points of view, or technically its omniscient narrator taking us into the heads of many characters, some of them horses and dogs, is completely gripping, perhaps because the main characters are in some kind of danger—of becoming glue, say—while the Hollywood people are not in danger at all; nothing is at stake for them, or at least nothing that we can worry about. What can happen to such successful and overprivileged people? The Master would probably also say Ten Days in the Hills doesn’t hold attention because the points of view are too diffuse, and it lacks a central protagonist with whom we can identify, though he of course wouldn’t have used that term.
But Smiley is an accomplished novelist and deserves the benefit of the doubt: it seems clear that we are meant to read this book another way than for the story, by relishing each discussion of the hundreds of subjects embedded in the text. What’s a fetish really? “Did you ever see that movie Hanging Up? About Nora Ephron’s dad?” “Where is the end of civilization taking place?” Do recipes for penis enlargement really work? The effect is one of Smiley’s extraordinary mental exuberance, in itself a pleasure even if we are not to have the more conventional responses to plot and character. Whether we prefer those, or even require them, brings us back to the strictures of the Master, and his reflections on why we read fiction, what we want from it.
The test finally is how well all this works. For this reader the amusement is with the discussion of current events, in the voice (common to all the characters) of the educated dissenter from Bush administration politics and the war in Iraq. Okay, it isn’t William Pfaff or Tony Judt, but it brings current dilemmas under discussion, in the way Boccaccio brought fidelity or piety under discussion, a step up from the Saint’s Tale, but not far from the Saint’s Tale’s exemplary function. Probably Ten Days in the Hills should be read as we would spend an afternoon with an author, stiffened by her exigent morality and not unaware of the irony of the novel’s setting among the last moralists (and the simplest), Hollywood.
April 26, 2007